Thursday, March 13, 2008

reality bites

When poets start to focus on getting a manuscript published, it seems such a daunting and impossible task (so many contests, so many poets entering them, so many presses, so few open to submissions) that they don't look past that initial publication. (I know I didn't.) So what happens? Here is some straight talk from William Logan on the subject (first published on the Poetry Foundation blog):

"My theory about publishing poetry is so depressing, I’d rather not put it on the page. Here goes. Take the trade and university presses, and the better independents. The first year, I suspect most poetry books sell between 500 and 1000 copies. Let’s say 750. Perhaps 250 of these go to libraries, where ten get taken out and read. (By this I mean read cover to cover. Otherwise it’s not reading; it’s browsing.) Two hundred are bought at readings or by fond friends and ignorant relatives. Of these copies, 20 might be read (if we’re talking about my relatives, the figure is lower). The remaining 300 copies are bought by the few people in the country who read poetry, and of these fifty copies might be read. By my count, the book gets fewer than 100 readers the first year. Perhaps the book receives one or two reviews (an editor told me that half the books he publishes—this is a New York publisher—get no reviews at all.)

The second year is worse. Now the book sells 30 copies, of which perhaps five are read. The books in the libraries gather another 10 or 20 readers. The third year the book sells 15 copies, or is remaindered. After six or seven years, the public library copies get sent to the Friends of the Library sale. The university library copies gather dust. My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence.

Say, then, that in three years, in a country of 300,000,000, a book of poetry sells 800 copies. You could search through five football stadiums, each seating 75,000, before you could find one buyer. If I’m correct that only about 100 of those buyers finish a book of poetry, you’d have to search through 40 stadiums to find even one person who had read the book. We live in a minor art. That doesn’t mean we love it the less, or hate it the less.

There are exceptions; but—let’s be honest—few poets selling ten or twenty thousand copies will be of any interest 50 years later. There were dozens of poets who sold much better than the young Eliot or Pound. Stevens’s Harmonium sold so poorly it was remaindered for 50 cents a copy. If you sell a lot of books and want a lasting reputation, hope that you’re Robert Frost."

Best: "My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

recommended reading

James Longenbach's superb little book, The Art of the Poetic Line, is so clearly written and chock-full of insights, it has started me thinking about meaning again, only in a different way, to wit: a poem's meaning may be a bonus (or even a distraction) but it is not a necessity. A poem gives aesthetic pleasure, evokes emotion, and otherwise entertains and engages the senses and intellect, but it serves no useful function. In other words, the use of language--to communicate meaning--is not the primary use of language in a poem because a poem, like any other art, is entirely useless. The fact that a poem is composed with something we also use to communicate meaning (our language) doesn't mean that language in a poem must also communicate meaning. As Longenbach eloquently details, there are many and various ways that a poem creates an effect in, and engages with, the reader--communicating meaning is only one of them, and that one, not even necessary (his discussion of Ashbery is especially relevant to this idea). Instead, the sonic texture, syntactical variety, and kinds of line break (or line end as he likes to refer to it), trump any mere communication of meaning. They create associations in the reader that may become meaning or may simply stay in the realm of reverie.

The idea that there is a split between meaning (something deep) and craft (something superficial) is erroneous as any editor can tell you—or any poet who's done serious revision on their work. You can hardly fiddle with the language in a poem, or the line breaks, or the syntax, or even the simplest grammatical element, like pronouns, without turning the poem toward, if not into, something else. It's like the idea of a split between style and content--what could that be? How could that be? I have to smile when I hear commentators describing Obama's speeches as "just words" or "only words"--again, this idea that there's a "surface" of language that is somehow inferior to its "deep" meaning. How is such meaning attained if not through the surface, the words?

Longenbach's discussion of prose poems is particularly enlightening, and I like how he goes immediately to the one writer who most decisively demonstrates that there is no split between the two--James Joyce. How is Joyce's prose different from poetry? It's not lineated--overtly, that is. But is lineation the only way to finally define a poem? Longenbach quotes Mallarme's provocative, but finally, all-too-broad, remark:

There is no such thing as prose. There is the alphabet and then there are verses, which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.

I also appreciate Longenbach's discussion of poems that are "semantically incoherent and syntactically coherent"--a great way to describe elliptical poetry (yes, it all leads back to ellipticism ;-).